The homilies below were offered on the occasion of First Communion which is celebrated at the weekend parish liturgies on one of the Sundays of Easter. From 2002 to 2010 the children also celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation as part of the restored order of the initiation sacraments.
I would like to offer a special apology to my sister, Margaret (Margie), who often appears in these homilies as my protagonist. Although the stories are based on real events from our childhood, I am confident that they would emerge quite differently, if she were giving her account.
Who We Belong To
May 4, 2003
Luke 24: 35-48
I don’t know what you think of bananas. For me, I could take them or leave them. But banana cupcakes are an entirely different matter.
When I was about in the third or fourth grade, my favorite thing to eat was my mother’s homemade banana cupcakes. They were moist. They were sweet. They had about an inch of frosting on the top of them. When my mother would make banana cupcakes, the whole house would smell wonderful and my little sister, Margie, and I couldn’t wait until they came out of the oven.
I remember one weekend, my mother made about two dozen cupcakes and by Sunday night there were only two left. My mother looked and said, “Where are my cupcakes?” My sister and I looked at the ceiling as if there was somebody else in the room. “Well,” she said, “these last two cupcakes are for you snack when you come home from school tomorrow. So, I don’t want you to eat them until then.” And she lifted up the cake cover and put the last two cupcakes underneath it. She said, “George, this is your cupcake and Margie, this is your cupcake. Children, do you hear me?” My mother knew that she had to be very specific when it came to banana cupcakes.
I couldn’t wait to get home from school the next day. I ran into the house and lifted up the cake cover. There were the last two cupcakes. I ate mine immediately. It was delicious! Now there was only one cupcake left. It looked delicious, too. I carefully turned the cupcake around to observe it from every angle. I took my finger and scooped just a little bit of the icing and put it in my mouth. It was wonderful! It even tasted better than the one I just ate. There was only one problem. It was my sister’s cupcake.
Just then, I heard my sister saying goodbye to her friends and starting to come up the driveway. I knew that time was short. Then I did something that was not good. I’m sure none of you here this morning would ever do anything like this. But when I was younger, I loved to tease my sister. I loved to make her scream. And so when I heard her coming home, I grabbed the last cupcake and ran outside and met her in the driveway. “This is the last cupcake,” I yelled. My sister dropper her books and cried, “That cupcake is mine!” “Not anymore!” I shouted and shoved it into my mouth.
My sister screamed. She went running into the house. “Mommy, Mommy! George at my cupcake! He’s terrible!” And my mother came out. I was still standing in the driveway. I had icing all around my mouth. My mother did not yell. She just said six words that terrified me, “Wait until your father comes home.” I realized now that this game had risen to an entirely new level.
And so I waited. I waited thinking what was going to happen to me. Would I be grounded? Would I not be allowed to watch television? Would I be forbidden to go over to my friend’s house? I didn’t know what my punishment was going to be.
When my father came home, I heard him and my mom talking and then he came to me and he said, “George, I’m very disappointed in you. What you did was selfish and it hurt your sister. And so, until you can show me that you can be a better brother, you must eat supper in your room alone.” “Hmmm!” I thought, “that’s not so bad. I still get to eat. I still get to watch television. I’m not grounded.” “O.K.,” I said.
So, that night, I took my tray to my room and I ate dinner by myself. It was good. And when I finished, I stretched out on my bed. I thought, “This really isn’t so bad.” But then I heard the voices of my mother and father and sister talking at dinner. I heard the dishes clinking. I hear my family them laughing about something that they thought was funny. I began to feel alone. I began to realize that eating by yourself, away from the family, was not as easy as I had thought it would be. Before the night was over, I apologized and my dad said I could come back to the table.
I learned something very important that day. I learned that eating was not just about food. It was also about the people you eat with. The people you eat with are the people you belong to. That is why Jesus in the Gospel, after he rose from the dead and came back to his disciples, ate a piece of fish with them. Because he wanted to tell them that their mistakes were forgiven and that they still belonged to him.
This is something very important for all of you here today who are going to be confirmed and make your first communion. The sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist are sacraments of initiation, they are sacraments that tell us who we belong to. Those who are confirmed will be confirmed in their baptism. In baptism God claimed each one of you to be God’s own son or daughter. The food that we share here at the Eucharist will be the very presence of Jesus within us. In this meal Jesus recognizes each one of us as his own.
This is a meal that we should share often. We should come to this table regularly. Because it is in this meal that we find out who we are and who loves us. The people you eat with are the people you belong to. In this meal, we learn that we belong to one another, that we belong to Jesus, that we belong to God.
Learning from the Circus
April 25, 2004
John 21: 1-19
All the time that I was growing up, my father worked as a butcher which meant that we always ate very good meat. But it also meant that occasionally my dad would bring home posters which the grocery store had used for advertisement.
One day I remember he brought home a group of posters that had been used in a Sugardale meat campaign. The title of that display was “the Sugardale Circus.” The posters consisted of large colorful cardboard pictures of circus animals. There was a lion roaring, a tiger with sharp teeth, an elephant with his trunk up in the air and a black bear balancing on a ball. They were about four feet tall, about as big as I was when I got them. My father, with a certain amount of pride, said “George look at these. What do you think?” And I said, “I think we’re going to have a circus!”
So, I called my friend, Tommy Wagner, and he came right over. He couldn’t believe what a great circus we could make with these posters. We planned to have the circus on Sunday because that would give us all day Saturday to get ready. We decided we would ask my parents to take the car out of the garage and use the garage for the circus. We decided to place the circus animals all around the inside of the garage.
On Saturday we called all of our friends over and they had even better ideas. Loretta said she would make lemonade. Billy said he would sell tickets. Elaine and Pete and Tommy thought that they would take their places behind the animals and make animal sounds and jiggle them a bit when people came in so that they would seem real. Because it was at my house, I got to be the ringmaster. Which was very helpful because later on I found that running a circus was actually very good preparation for being pastor of St. Noel. But, this is taking me away from the story.
We were all having a great time on Saturday getting ready for the circus until we ran into our first problem. As I looked up from what I was doing I saw Cathy Phillips coming up the driveway. Now Cathy Phillips was a classmate of ours but she was a little different. She had a squeaky voice and stringy hair and we always found her saying dumb things. A lot of kids teased Cathy Phillips. We really didn’t like her very much. Tommy Wagner said she had the cooties. I don’t know what the cooties were, nobody ever explained them to me. But they were not good and we all agreed that Cathy Phillips had them.
So, Cathy Phillips walked right up to me and said, “Oh, George, are you having a circus?” “Mmm hmm,” I said, hoping she would go away. “Well,” she said, “last Halloween I was a ballerina. I have a costume. Could I be a part of your circus?” That’s the way Cathy was. Who ever heard of a ballerina in a circus! “No,” I said, “our circus is going to be animals only.” “Oh, I love animals,” said Cathy Phillips. “Can I be an animal? I’ll be any of the animals you want me to be! Can I please be a part of your circus?”
By this time I could see that Tommy Wagner was giving me the sign to get her out of there. So, because I was the ringmaster I figured I had to act. I stood up and I said something that was not very good. I said, “Cathy this is my circus and you are not welcome here. Go home!” I know, it wasn’t very nice and I felt bad after I said it. Cathy Phillips burst into tears and ran down the driveway. It was wrong, but there was plenty of stuff to do for the circus so I quickly got back to work.
That evening after dinner, my father looked at me and said, “How’s the circus coming?” There was something suspicious in his voice so I answered very carefully. “O.K.,” I said. Then he looked straight at me and said, “Is Cathy Phillips in your circus?” “No,” I said, “. . . I don’t think she wants to be.” My dad said, “Well, that’s interesting because that is not what Mrs. Phillips says. She told me that you told Cathy that it was your circus and that she should go home.” Now I knew that my father knew the whole story and so I tried to defend myself. “But, Dad,” I said, “it is my circus and Cathy is strange. I don’t want her to be part of it.” “Hmm,” said my dad, “It’s your circus. Now that’s very interesting. Isn’t your circus happening in my garage? Or are you paying rent for that?” “No, sir,” I said. “And isn’t your circus happening with my cardboard circus animals? Or, did you buy those from me?” “No, sir,” I said. “Well, let’s look at it this way. As long as your circus is happening in my garage with my cardboard animals, Cathy Phillips will be a part of it.” And I could tell by the way that he was speaking that that was the last word. Then my dad pushed a slip of paper across the table with Cathy Phillips phone number on it and said to me “You know what you have to do.” So I called Cathy Phillips and I apologized for what I said to her and I said that I thought we could use a ballerina in our circus.
When I told this to Tommy Wagner he said there is no way we could use a ballerina in the circus. So we decided to say that Cathy Phillips was a tightrope walker since tightrope walkers and ballerinas look somewhat the same. Tommy wanted to stretch a rope from the top of the garage to the back of the porch and make Cathy Phillips walk on it, but my mother insisted that the rope stay on the garage floor. And it worked out all right. In fact, the circus was a big success. Everybody came and in the end I have to admit that it was better having a tightrope walker in the circus—even if it was Cathy Phillips.
I tell you this story today because the Eucharist, the meal that we will all soon to share together is very much like that circus. Not the circus that I wanted to have that kept people out, but the circus that my dad said we should have that invited everybody in. Because the Eucharist is the meal to which everybody is welcome. That’s the way Jesus wanted to have it.
You know Jesus could have told the apostles after the Resurrection that he did not want to eat with them anymore. Peter had denied him and they had all run away when he was arrested. But you hear in today’s Gospel that Jesus says, “Come and have some breakfast. Eat with me.” Jesus said this because he wanted his disciples to know that there would always be room for them at his table. He wanted everyone to know that if you ate this meal with him then you would have to welcome others by forgiving them and loving them even when they were difficult to love.
We rejoice today with all of you who are here who are making your Confirmation and who for the first time will come and share that meal with us. We want you to know that Jesus invites you to this meal because he loves you and he always wants you to feel welcome. Remember, no matter what happens in your life you are always welcome here. This is also true for everyone here today. No matter what has happened, no matter what you have done or what you are dealing with, Christ in His love welcomes you to his table.
Christ welcomes us and we are to welcome one another. We who eat this meal are meant to act like Jesus. We who eat this meal are to believe that no one has cooties, that everyone is to be respected. As Christ has welcomed us, we are to welcome others into our lives.
Love and Creamsicles
April 10, 2005
Whenever I hear the beautiful story of the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, I think of a story that happened to me when I was the same age as many of you here today, who are making your Confirmation and First Communion. It is a story about fireworks. When I was growing up, our family loved fireworks. Therefore the Fourth of July was a very special day for us. I remember that when I was in the second grade, my dad announced that we were going to see fireworks at Edgewater Park. Now Edgewater Park had the biggest and the best fireworks of any place in Cleveland, so we were all excited. My dad said that we were going to pack a picnic dinner, but we would have to be careful because it would be very crowded at Edgewater Park.
It was! When we got to the park, there were thousands of people on the beach waiting for the fireworks to begin. We carried our blankets and our cooler with the food inside onto the beach. My dad saw an empty place ahead of us and he said: “There’s where we’re going, come along.” So we started moving towards the place. But I noticed that there was a man there with a cart who was selling creamsicles. Now I don’t know about you, but I love creamsicles. I love the orange ones, I love the cherry ones. But this man was selling blue creamsicles and I had never seen those before. I wanted one!
“Dad,” I said, “can I have a creamsicle?”
“George,” he said, “you don’t need a creamsicle, we’ve got plenty of food here in the cooler.”
“But it’s a blue creamsicle,” I said, “and I brought some of my own allowance money so I can pay for it myself. Can I please have a creamsicle?”
“George,” my dad said, “we’re need to get to that empty place on the beach before someone else does, so no. Definitely not!”
So what could I do? I went along. We unrolled our blanket, we took out some food and we began to eat. As we were eating, I was looking around in the crowd and I saw that my friend Tommy Wagner was sitting with his family a little up the beach.
“Dad,” I said, “the Wagners are here.”
My dad yelled out and waved and Mr. Wagner waved back.
“Dad, can I please go and watch the fireworks with Tommy Wagner and his family?”
“George,” my dad said, “the Wagners don’t want you there, stay right here. There are too many people here. It is too easy for you to get lost.”
“Please Dad,” I said, “Tommy Wagner is one of my best friends and I’ll have such a good time if I can watch the fireworks with him.”
I was wearing my dad down.
“OK,” he said, “but you go right over there and as soon as the fireworks are done, you come right back here. Understood? Promise?”
“Yes, sure dad, I promise.”
So I started going through the crowd over to the Wagners and then . . . I had an idea! I thought instead of going straight to the Wagners, what if I just went a little bit out of my way back to that creamsicle man? I knew he was not too far down the beach. Of course doing that would be disobeying my dad, but I really wanted to taste a blue creamsicle. I made sure I knew where we were sitting: next to a life guard station with a big red sign on it. That way I could find my way back. So I started down the beach through the crowd, looking for the creamsicle man. When I came to the place where we had seen him, he was not there. He must have moved on down the beach so I went a bit further, and then a little bit further and a little bit further and then the fireworks started. “Oh, boy,” I said, “I better get back to my family.” So I looked for the lifeguard station and went to it. But when I got there, it wasn’t the right life guard station. It didn’t have a red sign on it. Then I looked around and I saw that there were a whole row of lifeguard stations all up and down the beach. It was then that I realized that I was lost. I began to wonder whether I would ever find my family again? Would they leave and go back home without me? What could I do?
I decided to pray.
“Jesus,” I said, “ I know it wasn’t the smartest idea to go after that creamsicle, but I really need your help. I can’t find my family and if you could just lead me back, I promise I will never disobey my mother or father again. I will never tell a lie again. Amen.” Then because I was desperate, I began to cry.
After a few moments I heard a voice, “Is there a problem here, young man?”
And I looked up to see a police officer.
“Yes, there’s a problem,” I said, “I’m lost. I can’t find my family and I’m afraid they’re going to go home without me.”
The policeman said, “Do you have any idea where they are?”
“Yes,” I said, “they’re next to a big lifeguard station with a red sign on it.”
The policeman smiled and he put out his hand.
“Come with me,” he said, “I know right where that is.”
So we walked together for a very long time. Finally I saw my family sitting on our blanket and watching the fireworks. They were just coming to an end. I thanked the policeman and I ran towards my family. My dad saw me coming.
“Wow,” he said, “George, you’re back just right on time just as you promised. Good work. How were the Wagners?”
Then I realized that my dad didn’t even know anything had happened. He thought I was with the Wagners the whole time. This was good, I thought. All I would have to do was say, “oh they’re fine” and I could get out of this mess without any problem. But then I remembered the prayer that I made and the promise to tell the truth.
“Dad,” I said, “I didn’t go to the Wagners. I went to buy a creamsicle and I got lost and a policeman found me—that policeman (I pointed, the policeman waved, my father waved back). I never thought I would see you again.” Then I ran to my father and I hugged him.
Now my dad was just beginning to realize what had happened. It took him a few minutes to catch up on what I was telling him. Finally he spoke. “Now let me get this straight. You disobeyed me and did not go straight to the Wagners, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“And you went to buy a creamsicle even though I said you couldn’t have one, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“George,” he said, “I’m very disappointed in you.”
Then there was a pause and then he said, “But you told me the truth, even though you could have gotten away with a lie, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, hopefully.
“Well, that makes me proud,” he said, “Don’t ever do that again and let’s get these things together to go home.”
So we packed up our stuff and began to walk off the beach and just as we were leaving the beach, who did we run into but the creamsicle man!
My dad stopped and looked at me, “Hey, George, how about a creamsicle?”
The two disciples of Jesus in today’s Gospel were lost. Every thing was happening in Jerusalem. That’s where Jesus rose from the dead. But they were going in the opposite direction. They were going to Emmaus. Jesus, however, did not forget them. He came after them and turned them around so that they could return to Jerusalem and witness his Resurrection. Those disciples learned the same thing that I learned when I was at Edgewater Park—that even when you’re lost, even when you make bad decisions, Jesus still loves you and comes to walk with you. This is what I hope all of you who are making your First Communion and Confirmation today will remember. You belong to Jesus. He loves you deeply. Confirmation confirms His love. The Eucharist invites you to the table to share in His very life. Never forget His love for you.
This is a lesson for all of us here today. No matter how lost you may have become, no matter how many bad decisions you may have made, you still belong to the family of God. Jesus does not forget you. He is still your companion. So as we celebrate today these sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist, let us always remember that Jesus is with us. Let us remember that He will never stop loving us, that He will always lead us home.
When You See a Ghost
I don’t know if any of you have ever seen a ghost, but if you have, you know that it is not a fun experience. In today’s Gospel, the disciples saw Jesus after he rose from the dead and they thought he was a ghost. They were terrified. When I was about the age of those of you who are about to make your Confirmation and First Communion, I saw a ghost. Here is how it happened:
Each year as we celebrate another Confirmation and First Communion I realize how very old I am becoming. When I was in the second grade, they had just invented television. (You see what I mean.) I remember one summer evening our family was watching “Walt Disney.” Although television was very new, it was already very clever. Mr. Disney was showing clips from his new movie to encourage us to see it. The movie was called “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” It was a story about an Irish man who spoke to little people, which was another name for leprechauns. I don’t know if you know what a leprechaun is. It is like a small, magical character. You could probably call it an Irish fairy.
The leprechauns were the fun part of this movie. But there also was in the movie a ghost, an Irish ghost, which was called a banshee. Now, trust me, if any of you were to see this movie today, you would not be afraid of this ghost at all, because I know that you are all familiar with special effects in movies. You see them in the theater, you watch them on DVD at home. You see dinosaurs and space ships and ghosts of one kind or another, so they don’t surprise you. But back at the time when television was new, this was the first special effect I had ever seen. It scared me silly. The banshee was big and black and it moved around like a cloud. It had a face of an old woman who kept screeching and wailing and scratching on the window of Darby O’Gill’s bedroom, trying to get inside the house.
Now as soon as I saw it on the television I closed my eyes because I was afraid. It was too late. The banshee was already in my head; I could not forget it. But that was not the worst part. The worst part was, as soon as the television show was over, it was time to go to bed! Then I remembered something about my bedroom. In my bedroom I not only had a window like Darby O’Gill had, I also had a door, a door that went onto our back porch. Because it was in the middle of the summer (and because no one had air conditioning in their home then) the door and the window were wide open. There was only a very thin screen that was between me in my bedroom and whatever was out there in the darkness.
“Dad,” I said, “I think I’d like to sleep tonight with the door and window shut.”
“What?” said my dad, “It is the middle of the summer. It is ninety degrees! You’d never survive. You’ve got to keep them open.” I realized that he was right. So I went up to the screen door to make sure it was locked. As I jiggled the flimsy little lock, I just shook my head. I said to myself, “I could push my way through this door! What’s going to stop a banshee from coming in?”
So I lay down in bed, in the dark, trying to get to sleep. No luck. I could not fall to sleep. Every little noise I heard outside, every rustle of the wind sounded to me just like a banshee climbing up the steps of the back porch. So I lay there, listening. Suddenly I heard a looow, loooong, deeeep moan. “Help, help!” I cried. My dad came running in. “What’s the matter?” “Dad, I think there’s a banshee on the back porch, and it’s moaning!” “George,” my dad said, “that is the train whistle. You hear that every night. Now there is no such thing as a banshee. Go back to sleep.”
Well, now that he pointed it out, it did sound like the train whistle. That gave me some comfort. So I thought I would just close my eyes. I do not know how long my eyes were closed, but suddenly I heard something, and it sounded very close. I opened my eyes, and there, at the foot of my bed, right inside the screen door, STOOD THE BANSHEE! It was just like it was on television, except that instead of being black it was yellow. It was waving its’ hands over its’ head and moaning and yelling and looking right at me. “Help, help!” I cried. As soon as I called out, the banshee disappeared. My dad rushed in, “What’s the matter?” “Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to believe me. There was just a banshee at the foot of my bed and it was looking right at me!” “George,” my dad said, “you were sleeping. You were dreaming. You just thought you saw a banshee. There is no such thing as a banshee. So it cannot hurt you. Go to sleep.”
“But Dad,” I said, “I’m so afraid.” So my dad turned on the light, sat down on my bed, put his arm around me, and this is what he said: “George, there are a lot of scary things in life. You will always be able to find something to worry about. There will always be fears that get into your head. Most of those fears are not real. They cannot hurt you. Banshees are not real. They cannot hurt you.”
“But Dad,” I said, “can you prove to me that banshees are not real?” My dad stopped for a minute and said, “No. I cannot prove that. But here is what I want you to do. Instead of trying to prove what is not real, I want you to remember what is real.” “What’s real?” I questioned. “Yes,” my dad said. “This is what’s real: I love you. Your mother loves you. We are right in the next room. We are not going to let anything happen to you. The minute you call I will be here. Most importantly you must remember that God loves you. God is with you always. Wherever you are, God will always protect you and so you do not have to be afraid. That is what is real. That is what I want you to think about—not banshees.” With that, my dad put my head back down on the pillow and turned off the light. I tried to do what he told me to do. I kept thinking, “God loves me and my family loves me.” And you know what? In a few minutes, I was fast asleep.
Now I learned an important lesson that summer. I learned that there is power, real power, in believing in God’s love and believing in the love of my family. I learned that I had to be like the disciples in today’s gospel and not think about the things that were unreal (like Jesus being a ghost), but think about the things that were real—that Jesus was risen and was with me always.
This is what all of us come to celebrate today—all of us. There will always be scary parts of life. There will always be something to worry about. There will always be fears creeping into our heads. But if we can remember what is real, if we can remember who loves us, we can find peace.
In a few minutes, we will confirm these young people of our community in God’s love. Then we will invite them to share with us in the body and blood of the Lord for the first time. That is real. That is Christ’s real presence among us. That is what all of us must cling to at every time and in every place. For if we remember what is real, if we remember who loves us, then we have no reason to be afraid.
A Lesson at Christmas
April 29, 2007
This might surprise you but I would like to tell you a Christmas story. Now I know it’s not Christmas and in fact we are in the middle of the Easter season, but this Christmas story tells us something important about Easter and it also tells us something important about the confirmation and first communions which we celebrate today.
Now this story happened to me when I was in the 5th or 6th grade. It was about a month before Christmas and my mom and dad were asking me what I wanted for Christmas? I could not decide. Then one day, when I was looking through a catalog, I saw the perfect gift. It was an electric keyboard on which you could play music. Now today these keyboards are small and inexpensive, but in those days they were bulky and cost a lot of money. In fact this keyboard cost $85 which was a lot of money when I was a kid. So I knew it would be a hard sell. I told my dad, “This is what I want. Please, please can I have it for Christmas? I know it’s a lot of money. But if you get it for me, it’s the only gift you have to buy.”
My dad shook his head and said, “Even if it’s the only gift we have to give you, it’s still a lot of money. But I’ll make you a deal. Now I’ve noticed that you and your sister have been fighting and teasing one another. If you promise that from now until Christmas you will be a good big brother to your sister, that you won’t tease her or fight with her, then we’ll see if we can make it happen”.
“No problem I said, I can do it!”
My dad said, “George, I am serious. No teasing, no fighting.”
“No teasing, no fighting. It’s done, Dad, it’s done.”
“I don’t want you coming up to your mom and me saying you said this, she said that.”
“No, no, it’s not going to happen, Dad.”
“Okay, he said, we have a deal.” We shook on it, and he left. I remember thinking, “That was easy.” But I was so wrong. It was going to be the hardest month of my life.
It all started one day when I was coming home from school. I had saved up some of my allowance money to buy a treat for myself, my favorite treat as a matter of fact. I bought a Nutty Buddy. Do you know what a Nutty Buddy is? An ice cream cone with chocolate and nuts. I walked into the house after school eating my Nutty Buddy and there was my sister. She had this funny smile on her face and she said, “George, would you give me the rest of your Nutty Buddy?”
And I said, “You’ve got to be out of your mind. This is my Nutty Buddy. I bought it with my own money. If you want a Nutty Buddy, go buy one for yourself.”
Then she said, “That would be so selfish. I would have to go and tell mom that you were not sharing and you were not being a good big brother. How that would hurt me. In fact I feel as if I am starting to cry right now.”
This sick feeling came over me. And almost in disbelief I watched as my hand reached out and gave her the rest of my Nutty Buddy. Then I watched in silence as she ate it bite by bite. Then she licked her fingers and said, “Thank you, thank you very much.” It was going to be a long time until Christmas.
Another time I came home and I heard music coming from my bedroom. I walked in and there was my sister. She had all of my records out, spread over my bed. (This was before IPODS and CD’s.) She was playing them on my record player. I said “Margie, those are MY records. What are you doing”?
She said “I am being very careful. I am picking them up so I do not scratch them or break them. Thank you, George, for being such good and giving older brother.”
And all I could do was grit my teeth and say, “You’re welcome.”
So there it was, day after day, week after week. I never thought I could do it. But in time, it was Christmas Eve. I only had a few more hours to go and the keyboard was mine! That Christmas Eve afternoon my mom said “I am going out for a few errands. You children have been very good the last couple of weeks, no fighting or teasing. Now keep it up. I will just be gone for a little time. Remember tomorrow is Christmas”.
So she went. My sister started coloring. I took out my rock collection, because when you have a rock collection every so often you have to look at it and organize it. My favorite rock was a round white smooth one about the size of a plum. I was admiring it and my sister said, “George, let me hold that rock.” I said “Marge, not now. I am busy. I am working and organizing.” She said, “No I want to hold it. Give it to me.” Suddenly, she grabbed it from me and started running out of the room. Without thinking I jumped up and began fighting for the rock. And then–I still don’t know how this happened—but somehow I saw the rock sail through the air and hit the front of the television set. We both watched as a large crack formed down the television screen. (Up unto this point I didn’t even know you could crack a television screen.) But there is was. My mother came in at that point and saw the crack. (I don’t think she knew that you could crack a television screen either.) She turned to me and said “You were fighting weren’t you?” I nodded. She said “I don’t believe it. I leave for one hour and when I come back, you kids have cracked the television screen! Go to your rooms.” So we went, and step by step I knew I would never see that electric keyboard.
But you know, the next day, when I went down on Christmas morning, the keyboard was under the tree. After I unwrapped it and played with it, I went to my dad and said, “Dad I don’t understand. I didn’t keep the deal. I fought with Margie. We cracked the television set. But you still gave me the keyboard. I don’t understand.”
My dad said, “I know. Your mom and I talked about it. We decided that maybe if we gave you the keyboard, you would learn a lesson”.
“What kind of a lesson” I said?
“A lesson about Jesus, he said. You know Jesus came on Christmas not because we were all good people but because he loved us. George, I want you to be good. I don’t want you to fight with your sister. I don’t want you to do what’s wrong. But even if you do, your mom and I still love you. The same is true about Jesus. Even when you do things that are wrong, he still loves you no matter what. You belong to him. Your mom and I thought if you could learn that lesson, it would be worth the price of the keyboard.”
And, you know, it was. I did learn that lesson, and I still believe it today. It is that lesson that I want each of you making your first confirmation and first communion to know today. You belong to Jesus. He comes to you not simply because you’re good. He wants you to be good. But even when you’re not, he comes to you because he loves you, no matter what. He says in the gospel today that you belong to him, he wants to lead you to eternal life, and no one will snatch you out of his hand. You belong to Jesus and he comes to you simply because he loves you. That is a lesson I think all of us should know. God doesn’t come to us because we’re good; God comes to us because God loves us. God has made us sons and daughters, confirmed us in his love. So let us celebrate that love today. Let us celebrate the Christ who comes to us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread
April 6, 2008
There are many things upon which we could focus on today from the beautiful gospel we just heard. But I want to talk about the last phrase: how the disciples came to see Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Now you remember in the story that Jesus walked with them along the road, but they did not recognize him. It was only when they broke bread with him, when they shared a meal with him, that they came to see that it was really Jesus. Now many of you here today will be breaking bread at the table of the Eucharist for the first time. And so the question I want you to think about today is, what does it mean for you to see Jesus in this meal in the breaking of the bread?
Now to answer that question, I have a story. Usually on First Communion day, I tell a story from my childhood. But today’s story is a special one, because it happened to me on my First Communion day.
But before I tell you the story, I need to give you some background. You see, when I was in the second grade, I went to a catholic school, a catholic day school. Now some of you here say, “Father George, we know about that, because we go to catholic day schools. We go to All Saints or Our Lady of Mt. Carmel or St. Francis.” Well, yes, you do. But your catholic day school is very different from my catholic day school. In our catholic school almost all of our teachers were nuns, religious sisters. Now some of you say, “Oh, Father George, we know about nuns. We’ve met religious sisters.” And you have. But the nuns that you met were very different from the nuns who taught me in school. For example, the nuns in my school all wore a full religious habit, special clothes which covered their entire body (not only from their neck to their shoes, but their head as well). In my childhood, nuns wore a veil, but not the lacey veils which some of you girls are wearing here today. They wore a complete veil that covered their whole head, and the only thing you could see was their face. You could not see their hair or their ears. All you could see was from their forehead to their chin. Now if you think that I’m making this up, when you go home, go on the internet and you can find a picture of a nun that looked the way they looked when I was in school.
So, when I was in the second grade, we had a new nun who came to our school as principal. And her name was Sister Laetitia. Now in Latin that means “Sister Joyful, Sister Happy.” But it was not a good name for Sister Laetitia, because she was not particularly joyful or happy. In fact, a Latin name for her should have been Sister Maximus, which meant “Sister Big.” Because she was big. She was six feet tall, and she had big shoulders. Of course, all you could see was her face, but you knew that there was a lot of nun under that habit. And Sister Laetitia was tough. In fact, there was a rumor that went around our school that before she became a nun she was in the navy. The rumor said that she fought on a submarine during the Second World War and that she had personally sunk a number of German battleships. Now I didn’t believe that, but my friend, Tommy Wagner said he believed it. He told me that he heard that Sister Laetitia had a tattoo, right here on her forearm, and it was an American flag with rope around it, and it said “Anchors Away.” So every time that she came into our classroom and she would write on the board and her habit would slip a bit, all of us leaned forward to see if we could see that tattoo. Now, I never saw it, but I knew that she was tough.
One day she came into our classroom and she said, “Boys and girls, I have a friend to introduce to you.” And then she pulled out from under her habit and brought out a paddle, a wooden paddle. She said, “This is my friend. His name is Mr. Conversation. I call him Mr. Conversation because if any of you children fool around in school, if you fight in the parking lot, if you don’t listen to your teacher, if you fail to finish your homework on time, then you and me and Mr. Conversation are going to go into my office and have a talk.” Now we knew that if we went into Sister Laetitia’s office, there would be more than talk. If we went into that office, we would receive a spanking. We could even see that Sister Laetitia had drilled holes in that wooden paddle so that when she struck us there would be less air resistance. When she left the room, my friend Tommy Wagner said, “Oh my God, first she took care of the Germans and now she’s gonna take care of us!”
So, that’s the background. And that brings us to the day of First Communion. Like all of you here, we prepared for our First Communion. We learned about how Jesus loves us, how Jesus is present to us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We learned all the things that you children have learned. And just like you children, we also had a practice in church. And at the end of that practice, Sister Laetitia came in and she said, “Boys and girls, after you receive our Lord in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, I want each of you to come back to your pews and kneel down.” (Now in our church we had kneelers; not like St. Noel’s.) She continued, “I want you to kneel down and I want you to put your face in your hands like this, and I want you to say a prayer. But most especially I do not want to hear a sound. I do not want to see a movement. And as you are kneeling there, if I hear even one peep or see even one little wiggle, then on Monday when you come to school, you and I will meet with Mr. Conversation.”
So I determined right away I was not going to say anything; I was not going to move. On my first communion day everything went well until I came back from communion. Unlike you children who sit with your families, in our parish all the children sat together. Next to me was my good friend Tommy Wagner. So I sat down and I put my face in my hands and I was not making a sound and I was not making a move, and suddenly I felt something hit me in the leg. And I knew at once it was Tommy trying to get me into trouble. So as I looked through the corner of my eyes, I saw that he, without making a move himself, had balanced himself on one knee and was using his other knee to hit me. Now of course what I wanted to do was to say, “Tommy, stop that.” Or I wanted to hit him back, but I couldn’t do that because I knew that Sister Laetitia was watching. And so I was caught. I could not speak; I could not move. And Tommy was making it look like I was causing the problem. I knew I was in big trouble. What could I do? Then I thought, “I should pray.” And here’s the prayer that I said. “Dear Jesus, I know that you suffered and died for me, but I do not want to suffer and die in a conversation with Sister Laetitia. Please help me. Please save me. You are my only hope.” And I just tried to be as still as I could while Tommy kept hitting me.
Well, when our time for prayer was over, we stood up and I looked right at Sister Laetitia and she looked right at me. I was worried. After the Mass was over, we gathered together in our classroom and Sister Laetitia came in. And for once she looked really happy. She said, “Boys and girls, you were wonderful. God bless you on your First Communion. All of you really were good. You really behaved yourselves.” And then she said, “Some of you had a harder time of it than others.” And she looked right at me and winked. In that wink I knew that things would be okay. She had figured out that Tommy was making me move. I knew that I would not have to meet with Mr. Conversation on Monday morning. And all I could say was, “Thank you, Jesus!”
Now I know that this story is a bit silly, but really speaks to the heart of what we’re about today. Everybody here through their baptism and confirmation belongs to Jesus. And that means that Jesus is with you always, at every time and in any place. And it means that you can always talk to Jesus, no matter where. But in a special way, Jesus is with you when you come and share this meal of the Eucharist, when you come and break bread at this altar. I want everyone here to know this, those who are making their confirmation and First Communion today and those who are not. Jesus is always with you, but it is here that he is with you in a special way. It is here that you can ask for anything you want, that you can ask him to save you from any trouble you have. Although Jesus is always with you, he is with you in the breaking of the bread.
A Theft at the Carnival
April 26, 2009
This is a very important day for our whole parish and for everyone here. It is important for the candidates who are going to be making their Confirmation and their First Communion. It is important for their parents. (Can it really be eight years already since you presented them for baptism?) Of course it’s a great day for our whole parish because we celebrate God’s gift of life and grace for us all. But what is most important today as we celebrate Confirmation and First Communion is that we understand what these sacraments mean. Why are they so important? So I thought I would tell you a story from my own childhood that might help you understand what is so important about these sacraments.
The story takes place at our parish carnival. When I was growing up I went to St. Paul’s parish in Euclid. Each summer we would turn the parish parking lot into a big carnival. There would be rides like a Ferris wheel and bumper cars. There would be food like elephant ears and pierogies. There would be booths where you could play games and win money and prizes. The parish would raffle off a car and do everything to attract attention. One year they even had some guy jump off a high tower into a tub of flaming water.
As much fun as this was, the best part for me was that I got to be with my dad. Because for the parish carnival, my dad would take off from work early so that he could work in one of the booths. He would bring me along with him. It was the best thing. I got to stay up late because the carnival didn’t close until about 11:00 at night. I got to wear a special apron that showed I was working in the booth. And in time I was even allowed to run the booth with the adults. The booth that we usually ran was called “Go Fish”. There was a big tub of water and in it were plastic fish that were floating and on the bottom each fish was a number. If you wanted to play the game you had to pay a dime. (Big money in those days.) Then you would get a stick with a little net at the end, and you could scoop up one of the fish out of the tub. If it had the right number on the bottom of the fish, you would win a prize. The prizes were very cool: purple teddy bears and those big foam dice you could hang from your rear view mirror. So everyone was coming to our booth.
My dad was very careful to explain to me what I had to do to run the booth. First of all I had to make sure that all the fish were floating with the numbers down. Secondly, I couldn’t give anyone the net until they gave me the dime. Then when I got the dime I had to put it immediately into my apron so that I wouldn’t lose it. And then as soon as there was a break, I took all the dimes from my apron and put them into the metal cash box. My dad was very clear on this he said, “Now George, this is NOT your money this belongs to St. Paul’s so you have to be very careful with it.” And I was.
Well that gets me to the heart of my story because, of all the times at the carnival, my favorite time was closing up at night. After all the other people left, it got quiet. The men who were working the booths would get together and share a beer and talk about what happened that night and count the money. And I loved to just sit off to the corner of the booth under the glow of the carnival lights on those warm summer nights and listen to the men talk and laugh. It made me feel grown up and that made me feel pretty good.
One night, however, things were different. One night the laughing stopped and the men began to talk very seriously about something. So I listened in to what they were saying.
They had counted the money and there was some money missing. The men talked to the men in the other booths and they had some money missing too. So everyone was trying to figure out what had happened to the money. One of the men from another booth who I did not know said, “You know I saw someone walking around here earlier today and he didn’t look like he belonged. I wonder if that person stole some of the money.” I was shocked. Somebody would steal money from the church? It was hard to believe. So the other men, asked what did this person look like? “Oh he wasn’t very old, just a young boy. But he was clearly not where he was supposed to be.” I was even more shocked. Someone my own age was stealing money? I couldn’t believe it! Then the men asked what did this boy look like? The man who had seen him thought and then said, “He was about this high and he had brown hair in fact, he looks like that boy right there!” He pointed right at me! All the men looked at me like I stole the money!
I froze. I wanted to say all kinds of things like wait a minute I didn’t do that; I put the money in my apron and then I put it in the box and I put ALL of it in there. I wanted to defend myself. But I was too afraid to say anything. But soon I didn’t have to, because my dad came out and put his arms around me and said, “No, no, this is not a thief, this is my son, George. He is working with us here. He would never steal anything.” Then the other men who knew me said, “Oh yea, don’t worry. That can’t be the boy. He is Mike’s son. He’s working with us and you can trust him.” So everyone agreed, and went off to tell the pastor that the money was missing. But I was safe. I didn’t have to worry. Nobody thought that I was a thief, because I belonged to my dad.
I think all of you making your First Communion and Confirmation today know who you belong to. You belong to your parents and your family. You know that they are there for you and if you have a problem you can talk to them about it and they will try to do the best they can to make you happy and safe. But you do not only belong to your family, you belong to Jesus. That is what we celebrate today in these sacraments. You became a part of Jesus’ family at baptism. Today Jesus is going to give you strength in the Holy Spirit and then Jesus is going to give you his very self in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. That is what the apostles discovered in today’s Gospel. When Jesus rose from the dead be came to them and said “Peace be with you.” I am with you now and we are going to face whatever we have to face together.
That is the best thing about being a Christian. We belong to a God who will be with us always, both when things are easy and when things are tough. We belong to a God who will lead us through life and lead us to happiness with God forever. So that is the Good News of what we celebrate today in Confirmation and First Communion. The Good News is that Jesus is with us. We don’t have to be afraid. We can always have hope, because we know who we belong to. We belong to Jesus.
Terror on the Glider
May 15, 2011
I have a question for the young people who will be making their First Communion today: Do you ever remember your parents or your grandparents talking about something that was around before you were born and isn’t around anymore? For example, do you ever remember them talking about a typewriter? A typewriter is a machine that people used to use to make letters on paper before we had computers. Or did you ever hear them talking about a record player? A record player is the way people used to listen to music before we had IPODs. Or did you hear them talking about a VCR? That was the way people used to watch movies before we had DVDs.
Today I want to share with you a story about something that happened to me when I was your age but in order to do so you have to understand about something with which I do not think you are familiar. It was around when I was growing up, but is not around much anymore. When I was in the second grade we had a glider. In fact I think everybody on our street had a glider on their front porch. And I know you’re asking me, “Fr. George, what is a glider?” Well, a glider is kind of a couch, but it’s an outdoor couch. It’s not lawn furniture; it’s not patio furniture. It was a regular couch and it was covered with oil cloth so that if it were to rain it would not be damaged. It had big cushions, and about three or four people could sit on it. And of course, the reason it was called a glider was because this couch could move. It could glide forward and glide backward. It was always a sure sign of summer when my Dad would carry up our glider from the basement and put it on the front porch. Because it meant from then on we could sit on our front porch and enjoy the nice weather and call out to our neighbors as they walked by on the sidewalk. So our glider was an important part of summer.
But the reason I want to tell you about the glider is because of something that I invented when I was your age. It involved the glider. I invented a new game. You see our glider also had a big cloth, a cover that would go over the glider. Of course you know that during the summer we often have a number of thunderstorms, when there is wind and lightening and rain. What I invented was this game: during a thunderstorm I would go out on our front porch and crawl under the cover on the glider. I would be right there in the middle of the storm, with the thunder and the lightening and the rain blowing all around me. But I was dry and safe because I was under the glider cover. It was a lot of fun. And it was a great invention of mine. The only mistake I made was to tell my sister about it.
My sister, Margie, is three years younger than me. As soon as she heard about my new game she said, “I want to go out on the glider during the storm.”
“No way,” I said, “You’re too little. It’s too scary out there. This is not a game that I invented for kids in kindergarten. You have to be in the second grade to be old enough to do this.”
“I can do anything you can do,” she said. “I want to go out on the glider.”
I told her that she couldn’t, but she never listened to me. So, as you would suspect, when the next big storm that came up, I went out and climbed under the cover on the glider. Just before the rain began to fall, my sister crawled in right next to me.
“What are you doing here?” I said. “You’re not old enough. Go back into the house.”
“Make me,” she said. “I’m staying here.”
But before I could begin to argue with her, there was a peal of thunder that was the loudest thing I ever heard. It was so loud it made your teeth rattle. It seemed like the sound was coming right outside the glider on our front porch.
My sister began to cry. “I’m afraid,” she said.
“See,” I told her, “you should have stayed in the house.” But even as I was speaking, it began to rain—not just little drops of rain but buckets of rain coming down, and plenty of wind. It felt like someone was hitting the cover of the glider with a broom. This was wilder than I had ever experienced before. And—even though I would not have admitted it to anybody—I was beginning to be afraid myself. So I said, “Margie, let’s get out of here.” We lifted up the glider cover to go back in the house, but there was so much thunder, rain, and wind that we realized that we were stuck. We would have to stay under the glider cover in the midst of this terrible storm and wait to see what came next.
Well, what came next was a voice. Through the screen door of our porch someone said, “Are you kids out there somewhere?” It was my father’s voice.
I said, “Yes, we’re here under the cover on the glider.”
Just a few minutes later, my dad came under the glider cover too. “What are you kids doing here?” he said. “This is a big storm.”
It’s a game I invented,” I said to my dad.
“And it’s no fun at all!” my sister said, “It’s scary with the thunder and wind.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said my dad, “this is kind of fun, all of us here underneath the glider cover. I’ll tell you what we should do. Every time it thunders, we should see if we could yell out even louder. And every time the wind makes the glider swing, we should see if we can make it swing faster.” And that’s what we did. For the rest of the storm we kept yelling and rocking on the porch until the storm was over. And I have to admit that even though I was afraid, it was a lot of fun. But it was only fun because my dad was with us.
Now I tell you this story because to this day I remember how in the middle of that storm I knew things would be OK when I heard my dad’s voice. I knew that my dad cared for us and loved us. This is really the message of Jesus in today’s gospel. He wants each of us to know that he cares for us and that he loves us. Jesus calls himself a shepherd. And we are Jesus’ sheep. We are to follow him because we recognize his voice and because we know that he cares and loves us. This is what First Communion is about. At Baptism you became a part of Jesus’ family. Today, at First Communion, when you receive the bread and wine, you take the very presence of Christ within you. In this way Jesus promises you that he will always be with you and he will always guide you.
This is a message that all of us should hear, not just the young people making their First Communion today. There are many storms in life, many things that frighten us and cause us worry. We need to remember who we are and to whom we belong. In the midst of the storms of life we need to listen for Jesus’ voice. He calls out to us to assure us that he is with us. And if he is with us, we do not need to be afraid.
With Us in the Water
May 6, 2012
I know that those of you who are making your first Communion have heard today’s gospel before. You understand that when Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches, he is telling us that we are connected to him and his very life is in us. Just as a branch must be connected to the vine, we must be connected to Jesus. This is good news, because it means that Jesus is within us and with us in every need we have.
I remember the very first time that I recognized that I really needed Jesus. It happened when I was as old as those of you making your first Communion today. In fact I had just made my first Communion and summer vacation had begun. At the beginning of that summer my mother said to me, “George, this summer I want you to learn to swim.” Now our family always went to the pool in the summer. In fact we went to Grovewood pool right here in Cleveland. But you did not need to swim to enjoy Grovewood pool. They built the pool so that at one end it was only three feet deep. Then as you went to the other end it got deeper and deeper until it was nine feet deep. Well, even if you could not swim, you could stay at the three-foot end, stand on the bottom, and still have a lot of fun splashing people around you. But that was not good enough for my mother. She said “George you can’t spend your whole life standing in three feet water. You need to learn how to swim.” I really did not want to learn how to swim. It meant I had to take swimming lessons which were held at o’clock in the morning when the water in the pool was still very cold. So who would want to get up early in the morning and jump into an ice cold pool? I didn’t. I told my mother that. But she had already made up her mind. And that was that.
But swimming lessons were not as bad as I had feared. That was because of the lifeguard who was my swimming teacher. Her name was Dana. She was in high school. She was very pretty. She wore a tight red bathing suit. I liked Dana a lot. And she was a very good teacher. So within the very first week I had already learned how to do the “jellyfish float.” Now I don’t know if you know the “jellyfish float,” but you put your face in the water, pull your knees up under you, and you float like a bubble on the top of the water.
Now this was progress, but the “jellyfish float” is not that great a float. You just stay in one place. So very soon, Dana said, “George, you have to learn the American crawl.” You all know this stoke. You put your face in the water and move your arms up and out of the water pulling your body forward. You can move from place to place. Dana showed me all the moves and told me, “Practice in the afternoon when you come to the pool.” So I practiced and practiced, and pretty soon I could go a couple of feet swimming. I was very proud of myself. I wanted to show Dana how much progress I made. I was eager for our next day at swimming lessons.
But when I arrived at the pool, I knew it would not be a good day. That day Dana’s boyfriend Mike came to swimming lessons. I didn’t like Mike. Whenever he was there, Dana spent all her time looking at and talking with Mike. I wanted to show her my American crawl, but I couldn’t even get her attention, because she and Mike were talking about what they were going to do that weekend. Then I had an idea. I thought I could swim across the three foot section of the pool to the other side. Then, when Dana looked up and saw I wasn’t there, I could say “Here I am Dana. I swam here!” That would really impress her. So, I did it. I put my face in the water and I started swimming.
You know, I did not have much experience in swimming. But I was confident because the other side of the pool was not that far away. So I swam. I kept swimming. But somehow I was not reaching the other side of the pool. I kept feeling for it but it wasn’t there. Finally, I had no energy left. I had to stand up and take a breather. So I stood up and reached for the bottom of the pool. It wasn’t there. What had happened was that as I was swimming across the pool I turned and swam right into the nine foot section!
So there I was, no energy left, no bottom to stand on. Down I went. All the way down till I reached the bottom of the pool. But I needed air. So I pushed up from the bottom of the pool and broke through the water to take a breath. But because I was exhausted, down I went again. This was not good. Because unless somebody saw me over in the nine foot section, eventually I’d be on the bottom for good. So as I came up the second time, I looked for Dana. There she was with Mike at the side of the pool talking and talking and talking. Down I went again.
This is when I decided I would pray. Now I do not remember the prayer exactly, but it went something like this: “Dear Jesus, I know you are always with me and that you come to me in first Communion. When I made my first Communion, I promised to receive you every weekend. If you want me to receive you next weekend you better do something.” When I came again and I looked over, Dana wasn’t there. Mike was there waving his hands and shouting. Suddenly I felt someone grab me and pull me to the side and out of the pool. It was Dana! She said, “George how did you get into the nine foot section?” I said, “I swam here!” “Well, good for the swimming” she said, “but we have to work on your directions.”
That was the first time that I really knew that I needed Jesus. I prayed and I believed he was with me. It was an important experience, because many other times in my life, I again had to trust that he would not forget me. What I want to say to all of you making your first Communions today, is as you come to the altar you need to know that Jesus gives you his entire life and promises to be with you always. No matter what you need to face, you can count on him.
This is true for all of us here today, whether we are making our first Communion or our thousandth Communion. Wherever we find ourselves, no matter what is going on in our lives for good or for bad, Christ is with us. We can count on his presence. As we receive Communion, he promises to be faithful. If Christ is the vine and we are the branches, it means we share his very life. His life is with us when we are happy and when we are sad, when we are sleeping and when we are awake, when we are walking and—yes—when we are swimming.
Fishing and Forgiveness
April 14, 2013
On this First Communion day, we have a very special gospel. Or at least it was a special gospel for Simon Peter, because this gospel is the first time that Simon Peter and Jesus meet after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This made Simon Peter very nervous because, as you know, before Jesus’ death Peter denied that he was Jesus’ friend. That hurt Jesus very much. So as Simon Peter and Jesus meet in today’s gospel, Simon was certainly worried whether Jesus would forgive him for hurting him. But, it goes well for Peter. When Jesus prepares a breakfast for him on the beach, it is clear that Jesus forgives Peter, even though he denied him. So, this gospel is a gospel about fishing and about forgiveness. And, it reminds me of a similar story in my life about fishing and forgiveness.
During the summer when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I would always go fishing with my father. After mass on Sunday, we would take our fishing poles to the car and drive to the bait store. There we would buy a carton of night crawlers. Do you know what night crawlers are? They are big, long, juicy worms, and fish love to eat them. So we would go down to Wildwood Park at the end of Neff Road and go out onto the pier. Then my dad and I would take night crawlers, put them on our hooks, and drop our lines into the water. We would wait for the fish to bite. They often did. But, even if they didn’t, it was fine, because the best thing about fishing was being with my dad—just the two of us together.
So, you can imagine how upset I was when my younger sister, Margie, came to me and said,
“I want to go fishing with you and dad.”
I knew at once I didn’t want her there.
“No,” I said, “you can’t go fishing. Fishing is not for girls.”
“Yes it is!” she said.
“No, you can’t go fishing. You are only in second grade. You’re too little.”
“No I’m not!” she said.
“You can’t go fishing. You are too weak. You couldn’t pull the fish out of the water.”
“No I’m not!” she said.
“You can’t go fishing because you would have to take a big, slimy night crawler and put it on the hook.” (My sister hated night crawlers.)
“Dad will do that for me!” she said. “I’m going to go ask him right now.”
Off she went. I was upset. I knew what my dad would say. He always would invite my sister along even though she was a girl and even though she was little. Sure enough, next Sunday when I came to the car with my fishing pole, there was my sister Margie with her fishing pole that dad had just bought for her.
Now, I loved my sister, Margie, but she could do one thing that would drive me crazy. She would smile a certain smile. I called it “the Margie smile” and I’m going to try to do it for you so you can see it. She would smile like this:
[Fr. George does the Margie Smile]
Now this smile meant a number of things. First of all it meant: “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It also meant: “I’m happy and you’re not.” But, most especially it meant: “I’m here and you can’t do anything about it.”
So, when I came to the car that Sunday morning, there was my sister with the Margie smile on. She smiled as she took her fishing pole and put it in the trunk. She smiled as she climbed into the back seat of the car and sat down. She smiled as she held my father’s hand walking down the pier, but most of all she smiled as my father took the night crawler and put it on the hook for her and then helped her throw the line into the water. I was miserable. I thought that this day could not get worse. Yet, it did. Only a few moments after the line hit the water there was a tug on it. Then my sister pulled out (with my father’s help of course) the largest fish I’d ever seen caught at Wildwood Park. This fish was so big it barely fit into the bucket we had for the fish we caught. After that she was no stopping her. For the rest of the afternoon, every time I looked over at her, she would point to the fish and smile.
I couldn’t take it. I had to stop her from smiling. Then I had an idea. I noticed that when Margie would lean forward to look into the water an generous space opened up between the back of her neck and her blouse—a space big enough to drop something in. So the next time she leaned forward to look into the water, I reached down and took the biggest, slimiest night crawler I could find and DROPPED IT IN! Then, I just waited. I didn’t have to wait for long. Soon my sister started screaming. She jumped up, put down her pole, and started running up and down the pier.
“There’s something in my blouse! There’s something in my blouse!”
She pulled her blouse out of her pants and the night crawler fell onto the pier. She was no longer smiling.
That’s what gave me away. My father saw the night crawler, and he saw me smiling. He picked up the worm and came over to me.
“George,” he said, “do you have any idea how this night crawler got into your sister’s blouse?”
“It could have crawled there.” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “it could have, but I don’t think so. Did you put it there?”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“Well,” my father said, taking my pole, “why don’t you go back to the car in the parking lot and see if you remember there?”
By the time I reached the car, I knew I was in trouble. I had done something wrong. My sister was upset, and I was afraid of what was going to happen to me. Would my dad refuse to take me fishing? Would he make me stay in my room? I didn’t know what was going to happen. After about a half an hour my dad came down to the car.
“Have you remembered anything yet,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I did it.”
“Good, and do you know why you did it?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“I’m sure,” said my father. “You did it because you listened to your worst self. You listened to that part of you that is mean and selfish, and you ended up hurting your sister. But, I know you have another part of you that is your best self. If you listen to that part, you would be happy that your sister was with us and we as a family could fish together. Now, because I know that best part is in you, here’s my deal. If you promise to act out of your best self and if you apologize to your sister, we’ll call an end to this. Deal?”
“Deal, sir,” I said.
(Then, as he walked away, I said to myself, “That went a lot better than I though it would.”)
That’s what Peter thought in today’s gospel, when Jesus prepared the breakfast on the beach. Peter said, “You know, that went a lot better than I thought it would.” Jesus forgave Peter for the very reason my dad forgave me. Jesus could see Peter’s best self, he could see all that was good about Peter. That is why he could put Peter’s mistakes behind him.
For all of you making your First Communion today, I want you to remember that Jesus always sees your best self. No matter how many times you mess up and do what’s wrong, Jesus sees how good you are. He remembers how much he loves you. It is for this reason that he welcomes you to the table today and wants to share this meal of the Eucharist with you.
This is true for all of us here today. No matter what we have done in the past, remember that Jesus welcomes all of us here to this meal. He sees the goodness that is in us. Jesus never fails to see our best self. That is why he invites us to this meal so that we can share life with him.
Being Better to Each Other
May 4, 2014
I grew up on the east side of Cleveland on a small street just off of Nottingham Road. It was a great neighborhood. It was the kind of neighborhood where families would gather on one another’s porches on summer nights and kids would play ball in the street. Everyone in our neighborhood knew one another and looked out for one another—with one exception. In the middle of our street there was a house which was covered over with vines. The yard was filled with trees and shrubs which made the house difficult to see. Around the yard was an iron fence, and on the fence there was a gate, and on the gate there was a sign. It said: KEEP OUT. In that house lived a large bald man who everyone in our neighborhood called “The Russian.” I don’t know if anyone knew his real name. But if they did they never used it. “The Russian” had a big black dog that all of us kids in the neighborhood called Hell Hound, because if you even came close to the fence, that dog would come bouncing out barking and jumping like a dog out of Hell. It was only the fence that would keep him from biting you. No one ever talked to “The Russian.” You could see him sometimes in his yard smoking his pipe, but he lived alone. I was afraid of him.
But there’s more to the story. It began on my First Communion Day. Many of you here who are having your First Communion today are planning a party afterwards. After my First Communion we also had a party. And at the party I received some gifts. The best gift was from my Aunt Josie. She gave me a wiffle ball set. Now you might not know what a wiffle ball is. But it is a plastic ball about this big. It’s hollow and has big holes in it. There is also a big bat that comes with it that is also hollow and very light. The good thing about a wiffle ball set is that you can hit that ball as hard as you want and it doesn’t go too fast, and because it is not heavy, if it hits something or someone, there is no damage done. So wiffle balls were great for playing in crowded neighborhoods, and my wiffle ball set was a big hit with my friends. All through the summer we would play wiffle ball after supper in the street.
Well one day I was at bat and the ball came to me. I hit it as hard as I could, and that ball flew off my bat, over the fence, into “The Russian’s” yard. All my buddies just looked in silence. They shook their heads and said, “This game is over.” They patted me on the back as they went home saying, “You’ll never see that ball again.” But I could see it. It was caught in a bush just inside “The Russian’s” fence. I knew that if I went to the fence and pushed my hand in as far as I could, I could get it back. But when I got to the fence, right next to the bush was Hell Hound. He had his eyes on me, and he was growling. I knew that if I pushed my arm through the fence, I would lose it. I went home sad.
But that night in bed I made a decision. I was not going to give up. Even though I was afraid, I was going to ask “The Russian” to give me my ball back. So the next morning I got up, crossed the street, and stood right in front of the gate. There was no need to knock. As soon as I got there Hell Hound came running out of the house. He was barking, and jumping, and throwing himself up against the fence. But I just stood there and waited. After a few moments the front door opened and “The Russian” came out. He was big. He was moving slowly down the front steps and he had his eye on me. But I did not move. I just waited. As he got closer he grasped Hell Hound by the collar—I was happy about that—and then he opened the gate. What I wanted to say was “Could I have my wiffle ball back, please.” But all the words left me, and I just stood there with my mouth open. Then “The Russian” shook his head slightly, reached into his jacket, and pulled out my wiffle ball. “I ‘tink dis belongs to you.” he said. “Don’t let it happen again.” “I won’t,” I said. I grabbed the ball and ran home.
My thoughts about “The Russian” changed that day. We never became friends. But ever after that, as I was riding my bike down the street, if I would see him in his yard smoking his pipe, I would yell out and wave. And he would look up and give me a little nod.
I tell you this story on First Communion Day, because I think it helps explain what we are doing here. Many of you young people are making your First Communion for the first time. Many of us here are making Communion for the thousandth time. We know that when we receive Communion, Jesus comes to us in a real way. But Christ comes to us for a purpose: he wants us to be better to one another. In life we will run into some different people, some strange people, some difficult people. Jesus wants us to give them the benefit of the doubt. They might not be as bad or as frightening as they seem. Jesus asks us to approach them with care and respect. This is what the disciples do in today’s gospel. They meet a stranger on the road and they do not dismiss him or ignore him. They walk with him and then invite him in to stay and eat with them. In that action they discover that the stranger is Jesus. So whenever we receive this Eucharist, whenever we gather at this table, Jesus is asking us to welcome the stranger, to treat people who are different with respect, because in doing so, we may find Jesus in them.
Red Cake and Lima Beans
April 19, 2015
This is a very special day for all of you here who will be making your first communion at this liturgy. I know that after this liturgy some of you will have a family dinner or party, and your parents and grandparents will probably bring some of your favorite foods to eat. We all have favorite foods, right? Things we like to eat. When I was your age one of my favorite foods was red cake. (Now it had another name that we can’t use in church.) But red cake was a two-layer cake that was bright red and covered all over with white fluffy icing. My sister Margie and I loved red cake. We would like to eat it every day. But my mom only made it on special occasions. So once when we were planning to celebrate my dad’s birthday with a family dinner, my mom asked my dad, “What do you want to eat for your birthday?” He looked at Margie and at me and he said, “Red Cake!” “Hooray!” we said. It was decided that we would eat red cake.
My mom made the cake the day before the dinner, and it came out beautifully. My mom is a great cook. Every couple hours I would walk into the kitchen just to look at the cake, and to smell it, and to imagine how wonderful it would be when I ate it. When it came time for the dinner, my mom began to prepare the meal, and I came into the kitchen to smell the red cake. It was wonderful. But as I smelled the red cake, I smelled something else. And my heart stopped. I forgot that my dad not only loved red cake, he also loved lima beans. Now, do you have some foods that you hate? I hate lima beans! To me, they are little packets of stinky mush. I said to my mom, “Why are you making lima beans, I hate lima beans!” She said, “They’re your dad’s favorite. And I don’t want any trouble from you tonight. You will have to clean your plate.” So, you see my problem. I wanted to eat the red cake, but I didn’t want to eat the lima beans. So I came up with two plans and I hoped that one of them would work.
When time came for dinner, the red cake was displayed on the counter. My mother brought to the table meat, potatoes – and a large steaming bowl of lima beans. After the prayer, my dad took a big spoon of the lime beans, put them on his plate, and put a few in his mouth. “Mmmmm!” he said. “They’re like candy! Wonderful!” I gagged. So I took the serving spoon and I put one lima bean on my plate. My mother just looked at me. So I took the serving spoon and I put a second lima bean on my plate. She shook her head. She took the serving spoon and she put thirty lima beans on my plate. And she did the same for my sister Margie, who also hated lima beans. She said, “Look kids, you have to eat your vegetables, and today they are lima beans. So clean your plates. No lima beans! No red cake!”
My first plan had failed so I tried the second. I figured that although I had to put lima beans into my mouth, I didn’t have to swallow them. So during the meal I packed behind my cheeks all but two or three of the lima beans that were on my plate. And then I said, “Excuse me; I have to go to the bathroom.” I got up, and went to the bathroom, and spit out the lima beans. Then I waited an appropriate amount of time, and flushed the toilet. Success!
I came back to the table and sat down smiling. Then I noticed that my sister Margie was also smiling. That was not good. So I looked around, and I saw it: her plate was clean and my plate was filled with lima beans! And then she said, “Mom that was a great dinner. I can’t wait for dessert.” I lost it. “It’s not fair!” I said. “Margie put her lima beans on my plate!” “Hmmm!” my mother said, “If those are Margie’s lima beans on your plate, where are your lima beans?” I said nothing. “And what were you doing in the bathroom?” I said more nothing. “Here’s the way I see it,” my mother said, “Your dad works hard to earn money to buy food, and I prepare it, and you spit it out. To your room!”
So I went to my room, and I sat there alone and listened as Margie and my mom and dad finished the meal, cleared the table, and then served the cake—the cake that I would never taste. It seemed to me that I sat in my room for a very long time. But then there was a knock at the door and my dad came in. “George,” he said, “we’re having dessert and I think you should join us.” “But Dad,” I said, “I didn’t eat my lima beans.” “I did,” said my dad, “and they were delicious.” “But Dad, I tried to trick you, and that’s the same as lying.” “I know,” said my dad, “and I’m not happy about that. But you are my son and I want you at the table.” Then we went out together and we each had two pieces of red cake.
Now I tell this story on your first communion day, because I think the words my dad said to me are very close to the words that Jesus is saying to you. “I love you. And I want you at my table.” In the gospel today when Jesus meets the apostles after the resurrection, he says, “Do you have anything here to eat?” He wants to share food with his apostles, as a sign of his love. Jesus wants to share with all of you who are making your first communion today the bread and wine of the Eucharist, his body and blood, as a sign of his love. We don’t always do things well. We fall short. We are not always the people we need to be. But Jesus always wants us to be at his table. This applies not only to those making their first communion here today, but to all of us here. Wherever you are coming from, whatever has happened, know that Jesus wants you at the table. Let these children today who make their first communion, remind us how deeply God loves us and how Jesus wants us to share this meal always.
Finding a Pony
April 10, 2016
Who would not want a pony? When I was about the age of the children making their first communion today, I wanted a pony more than anything. Growing up, half of the shows on television were Westerns. They had cool men riding on horses, wearing cowboy hats, and fighting bad guys. I wanted to be a cowboy. But to be a cowboy you had to have something to ride.
Now, I was realistic. I realized I couldn’t have a horse. Horses are big and we didn’t have a farm. We lived in a little house just off of East 188th street, and a horse would be too big for our yard. But a pony is smaller. I could imagine the pony being happy in our backyard. I prayed to God for a pony: “Dear God, I know that you love me. And I know you can do anything. So please give me a pony. Any pony will do. Although, if I have a choice, I’d like a black and white one. They are my favorite.
I was pleased with this prayer to God and so I went to talk to my father. He was reading the newspaper. I came right up to him and said, “Dad, I want a pony.” He looked up from the paper and just stared at me. “George,” he said, “where would we keep this pony?” “ Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. “We could build a little pen right next to the garage. The pony would be just big enough to fit into that pen.” My father said, “How would the pony get any exercise in that little pen?” “I’ve been thinking about that too Dad,” I said. “I would take him for a walk every day around the block on the sidewalk.” “No,” my father said. “No pony. We live in the city. No pony. Not now or ever.”
This was somewhat of a setback in my plan to get a pony. I went to God again and said, “You know God, my dad doesn’t want to give me a pony. I need some new ideas.” Then I thought of my sister, Margie. If she and I were both to ask my dad for a pony maybe he would change his mind. So I went and I found my sister. She was in the kitchen playing with her Barbie doll. “Margie, will you help me ask Dad for a pony?” “No,” she said. “I don’t want a pony. I want a dollhouse for my Barbie doll.” “Ok,” I said, “now we’re cooking. The two of us together can ask for a pony, and then once we get the pony, the two of us together could ask for a Barbie dollhouse.” My sister thought about this for a moment. Then she said, “No. I don’t like ponies. They smell.”
I don’t know about you children here today, but do you ever get angry with your brother or sister because they’re being so stubborn, And then do you maybe do something that you really shouldn’t do? That’s what happened to me. I grabbed the Barbie doll and I said, “Look, if I’m not going to have a pony, you’re not going to have your Barbie doll. I’m going to throw her down the garbage disposal.” “No, no,” said my sister. I turned on the garbage disposal. Whirl, whirl, it went. “Down she goes,” I said. “Stop! stop!” said my sister. Then my mother came in the room. She turned off the garbage disposal. She took the doll from me and said, “To your room.” And I went. And when I got to my room, I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t get a pony. My dad wouldn’t give me one. My sister wouldn’t help me. And God didn’t seem to hear my prayer.
So after about an hour in my room, I went out on the front porch and sat on the front steps. It was hopeless. I would never have a pony. And then, I looked up and there he was—a pony, a black and white pony, standing right on the corner of East 188th street! Even I was wondering, what is this pony doing here? Then I saw that next to the pony was a man with a camera. He was going up and down the streets seeing if people would pay for a picture of their son or daughter on his pony. I ran into the house. “Dad,” I said. “There’s a pony outside!” “I’m sure there is,” he said, without even looking up from his paper. I said, “No, no, really. Look outside! There’s a pony!” And when he looked outside there was the pony.
And I said, “Can I ride him?”
And I did. I even got a cool cowboy hat to wear as the man took my picture. Now of course, I didn’t get to keep the pony. (I didn’t even get to keep the hat.) But to this day, I believe that God sent me that pony to let me know that he did hear my prayer and that he loved me.
And that is what I want you children to understand today as you make your first Communion. God loves you, and God will always be with you, even at times when things seem hopeless. After Jesus’ death, his best friend Peter thought he would never see Jesus again. Yet in today’s gospel, he looks up and there is Jesus, standing on the seaside. Then, Jesus comes and they share a meal together.
Jesus does this for you who are making your first Communion here today. He wants for the first time to share this special meal with you, to show you his love. He wants you to know that he will always be with you, even when times seem hopeless. God may never give you a pony. But God will always find a way to show you His love.
The Eucharist and Welcoming
April 30, 2017
When I was the age of most of you who are making your first communion today, there was a girl in our class who was, how shall I say it, “a little different.” Her name was Hazel Peters. There were several things about Hazel that were not very attractive. First of all, Hazel wore her hair in a ponytail. Now there is nothing wrong with wearing your hair in a ponytail, but in Hazel’s case all of her hair did not make it back to the ponytail. Although most of her hair dropped behind her, there were all kinds of hairs that were sticking out of her head in all directions. The second thing about Hazel was that she had a lazy eye. What that meant is that both of her eyes did not look in the same direction. One would look this way, and the other would look that way. And so when you were talking to Hazel, you were not sure whether you should stand here … or maybe over here. But the most irritating thing about Hazel was that she was a giggler. She could hardly say anything without laughing. If you met her in the hallway, she would say, “Good morning, Hee, hee, hee, how are you today?” Or at lunchtime she would say, “Do you want half of, hee, hee, hee, my cupcake?”
Because of these things, Hazel was not very popular at school. In fact, most of the kids made fun of her. My friends would tell me, “George, stay away from Hazel. She has the cooties.” Now I don’t know even to this day what the cooties are, but you really did not want to have them. But the most difficult thing about Hazel was this: she liked me. I knew this because when we exchanged cards in class on Valentine’s Day, Hazel wrote in my card, “Thank you, George, for being my best friend.” But I wasn’t her best friend. I barely even spoke to her. But that’s what Hazel thought.
At the end of the school year, our teacher gave us an assignment to address the class on what was our favorite place to go during the summer. I gave my presentation on Euclid Beach. Now some of you don’t know about Euclid Beach. But this weekend when you gather together with your families, ask your parents or especially your grandparents and they will tell you all about it. Euclid Beach was this wonderful park right on the lake. It had rides. It had a carousel with a calliope, rocket ships, a fun house, and roller coasters. You could spend your whole day there having a great time all day long. That’s what I told my class.
After my presentation at recess, Hazel Peters came running up to me. I could tell that she was excited. She said, “George, hee, hee, hee, my dad works at Euclid Beach and can get free passes. Do you want to come to Euclid Beach, hee, hee, hee, with me?” I just froze. I didn’t want to go to Euclid Beach with Hazel Peters. I could see all my friends looking at me. “Cooties! Cooties!” they were saying. So I said, “No, Hazel, I don’t want to go to Euclid Beach with you. I want to go with my friends.” And Hazel’s eyes dropped (both of them) and she walked away sad. Now I felt terrible. I didn’t like what I said, but I didn’t know what else to say. I just wanted to forget about it.
Well, about three weeks later, my mom was busy with something in the kitchen. I said, “Mom, what’s going on?” She said, “Oh, the Peters are coming over for dinner tonight. I believe that their daughter, Hazel, is in your class.” “Mom,” I said, I don’t want to have dinner with Hazel Peters. I don’t like Hazel Peters.” My mom stopped and said, “Why don’t you like Hazel Peters?” And I said, “Mom, she has the cooties!” “The cooties! I’ll give you the cooties!” my mom said. “You are going to sit next to Hazel Peters at dinner and be a perfect gentleman or else.” And I knew what “or else” meant. So when the Peters came, Hazel sat next to me, and we had dinner. Mr. Peters said that the next time I came to Euclid Beach he could give me the inside tour and show me how the calliope works and how the brakes stop the roller coasters. I thought that would be fantastic.
After the Peters left, as we were cleaning up, I found on the table an envelope with my name on it. I knew it was from Hazel. I opened the envelope, and inside there were two passes for Euclid Beach and a note. “George,” it said, “these are for you. Take a friend.” I held my breath and thought, “How nice of Hazel to do this.” And then I thought, “Hazel is nice. She has frizzy hair, and you are not always sure she is looking at you. But she is kind and generous and God knows she is happy.” So at that moment, I decided that Hazel Peters did not have cooties. And the next day I called her on the phone and said, “Hazel, do you want to go to Euclid Beach with me this Saturday?” “Hee, hee, heeeee, Yes!” she said. And we went. And I got the inside tour. Now Hazel did not become my best friend, but we went to Euclid Beach several times that summer and really enjoyed ourselves.
To this day I am thankful that at the meal we had at our house I came to see Hazel in a new way. I tell you this story, because that is what happens to the disciples in today’s gospel. They are walking on the road and Jesus comes and walks with them, but they do not recognize him. They think he is a stranger. But they do not make fun of the stranger or push him aside. They listen to him. And then they invite him in to eat with them. And when they eat together, they see that it is Jesus and that he loves them. As we share together communion today, Jesus is asking us to welcome those who are a little different, to be accepting of those whom maybe other people ridicule. Communion with Jesus is communion with everyone Jesus loves. And Jesus loves everyone. So as we share this meal with Jesus at this table today, my prayer for all of us is that will be blessed with the ability to welcome and accept others, and that this gift will be ours today and always.
April 15, 2018
Luke 24: 35-48
My dad was born in Pennsylvania. When he came to Cleveland for work, he stayed for a while in a boarding house in East Cleveland. East Cleveland, in those days, was an exclusive address. The woman who ran the boarding house was Mrs. Breslin. She liked my dad a lot and he liked her. So, even after he moved out and married my mom, he would often come back to visit her. When I was about the age of those making their First Communion today, our family would visit Mrs. Breslin at least once a month. It was not fun. By this time, Mrs. Breslin was old and confined to a wheelchair. When I would come up to say hello, she would grab me by the cheek and shake my head. “Oh, you’re so cute!” she would say. Then she would give me a big kiss on my face and because Mrs. Breslin had whiskers, it tickled. Yuck! I couldn’t get home quick enough.
Because she was confined to the wheelchair, Mrs. Breslin was always asking me to do things. “George, go and get my purse out of the bedroom. Go into the kitchen and bring me a glass of water.” Sometimes when she asked me to do things, I would pretend I didn’t hear her and keep playing with my toys. My dad noticed this. And one day when we came home from a visit, he said, “We have to talk. I know that sometimes you pretend that you don’t hear Mrs. Breslin when she asks you to do something. This has to stop. I want you to jump up and do what she wants, whenever she asks you.” “But dad”, I said, “she asks me to a lot of things.” “Yes she does”, he said. “That’s because she can’t do them herself and you can.” “I know,” I said. “I’ll do it because you asked me.” “No, not just because I ask you, because Jesus asks you. Don’t you remember that we know that whatever we do for anyone, for someone like Mrs. Breslin, we do for Jesus.” “I remember”, I said. “So I’ll do it, for you and for Jesus.”
“Good”, my dad said. But then a strange smile came over his face. And he said, “Also, you should know, that if you make friends with Mrs. Breslin, she might introduce you to some of her friends.” Then he went away. And I said to myself, “I don’t want to meet any of Mrs. Breslin’s friends. I don’t want to meet more old people in wheelchairs with whiskers.” That’s what I thought; but I was wrong. So I did what I promised my dad I would do. Whenever Mrs. Breslin asked me to do anything, I would jump up and do it right away.
And after a while, she said to me, “George, I am really thankful that you have been so helpful to me. Would you like to meet my friend, Clarence?” “Sure”, I said, not too excited. “Good”, she said. And then she gave me two walnuts, whole walnuts, still in the shell. “I don’t like walnuts,” I said. “These are not for you,” said Mrs. Breslin, “These are for Clarence. Will you wheel me into the backyard?” So I did, expecting to see some old man in a wheelchair on the lawn, waiting for his nuts. But no one was there. Mrs. Breslin said, “Now sit down on this step and be very still. Give me those walnuts.” So I did, and she took them and clicked them together three times. Click, click, click. Nothing happened. So she did it again. Click, click, click.
Then I saw something coming down out of the tree in the backyard onto the lawn. It was a big, brown squirrel. And it ran up to Mrs. Breslin and me. It sat down about five feet in front of us. “George,” said Mrs. Breslin, “This is Clarence. Clarence, this is George.” Now I could tell that Clarence wasn’t too excited about meeting me. He had his eyes on those walnuts. So Mrs. Breslin took out one of the walnuts and placed it in her hand. “Stay very still,” she said. She held the walnut out on her palm. Clarence came very slowly, reached over, picked up the walnut, bit it open with his teeth, ate the inside, and then went back and sat down. He knew there was another walnut. “George, it’s your turn now.” So I took the walnut and held out my hand. “Be very still,” she said. I held it in my palm. Clarence came, took it out of my hand, cracked it open, and ate what was inside. Then he gave me a little nod and ran back up the tree. “Well,” said Mrs. Breslin, “What do you think of that?” I told her that I thought it was the best thing ever. Ever after that, I never complained about visiting Mrs. Breslin because she and Clarence and I became the best of friends.
In today’s gospel, Jesus shows his disciples his hands and his feet. He does this to remind them that they need to be his hands and feet to others—they need to do for others what others cannot do for themselves. Those making their First Communion today remind us that every time we share this meal, we commit ourselves to be Jesus’s hands and feet to others. We are called to reach out in our families, among our friends, in our schools, and serve others in Jesus’s name. When you do that, you should know that whatever you do for someone else, you do for Jesus. And—if you’re very lucky—you might even get to feed a squirrel.
Fishing with Uncle Mike
May 5, 2019
When I was about the age of those of you who are making your First Communion today, our family would go on summer vacation. But I did not have much fun, because what we usually did was visit my Aunt Mary in Pennsylvania. All we did there was sit in her house while she and my Dad talked. There was nothing to do. It was BORING. But one year, my Dad said, “This is summer we’re going on a fishing trip to Canada.” “To Canada,” I thought, “I’ve never been to Canada. That sounds like fun.” And what made it more fun is that we were going with my Uncle Mike and his family. My Uncle Mike was my Dad’s best friend, and we always had a great time when our families were together. Not only that, but when we got to Canada we were not going to fish off of some pier or from the shore. Uncle Mike had rented a cabin on a small lake in and there was a boat! We would drive that boat to the middle of the lake and fish from there. I couldn’t wait until vacation came.
Now, when we got to Canada, I have to admit I was a little disappointed in the boat. I was expecting a big white boat with a cabin and lounge chairs in the back. What we got were two little rowboats. Each one could only seat two people. So, it was decided that I would go in the boat with my Uncle Mike and his son, Mikey, would go with my Dad. Then, at the end of the day we would see who caught the most fish.
So Uncle Mike and I rowed out to the middle of the lake. When we got there, he handed me a fishing pole that he had brought with him. He said, “George, this is my lucky fishing pole. I always catch a fish with this pole. I am letting you use it today because this is your first time fishing. So, please take good care of it.” “I will, Uncle Mike. I’ll be very careful with it.” It was a beautiful fishing pole. It was blue and green. It had a big reel on it, and on the side of the reel there was a decal of Marilyn Monroe. (My Uncle Mike loved Marilyn Monroe.) So, very carefully, I took the fishing pole and lowered the hook into the water.
“George,” said Uncle Mike, “what are you doing?” “I’m fishing,” I said. “You can’t fish without bait!” “Well, I don’t have any bait,” I said. Then my Uncle Mike smiled and opened a large coffee can. He pulled out an earthworm at least eight inches long. “This is bait,” he said, “put it on your hook.” So, I took the earthworm and moved it close to my hook. But no matter how I tried the worm would not go onto the hook. It just kept wiggling. Uncle Mike said, “You have to stick the worm onto the hook. You have to push the hook through the worm.” “Will that hurt the worm?” I said. “We’ll never know,” said Uncle Mike, and he grabbed my hook and put the worm on it.
Now I was ready. I again lowered my hook into the water. “No, no,” said Uncle Mike, “that won’t do. You’re too close to the boat. Watch me.” So Uncle Mike took his pole, moved it way behind his shoulder, and then cast it forward. The hook sailed through the air. Kerplunk. It landed about 20 feet from the boat. “See that,” said Uncle Mike, “now you try.” So I took my fishing pole, put it back, and I cast it forward. Kerplunk. The hook landed about 5 feet from the boat. “That’s not far enough,” said Uncle Mike. “Try again.” So, I did it again. Kerplunk. The hook landed about 8 feet from the boat. “George,” Uncle Mike said, “I know you can do better. Now, try it again and give it all you’ve got.” So I took the fishing pole, stretched way back, and cast as hard as I could. There was no ‘kerplunk.’ But there was a scream. I turned around. Uncle Mike was holding the side of his face, and there was my hook. It had gone perfectly through his earlobe. (The worm was there also.) I wanted to catch fish. But what I caught was Uncle Mike!
Uncle Mike was a big man, and he was in a lot of pain. He stood up in the boat trying to remove my hook from his ear. The boat began to rock from side to side. I was holding tightly onto the pole. But this only lodged the hook deeper into his ear. Trying to relieve the pressure, Uncle Mike shouted, “George, drop the pole!” So, I dropped the pole. It went over the side of the boat and sank into the water. As it descended, it began to pull Uncle Mike over the side of the boat. He would have fallen in, if he had not grabbed his pocket knife and cut the line.
“Well,” said Uncle Mike, “that could have gone better. We better get back and take care of my ear. So, we rowed back in silence with the hook still in Uncle Mike’s ear and blood coming down the side of his face.
When we got out of the boat, I just ran. I wanted to be by myself. I didn’t want to see anyone because I had made a huge mess of the whole day. I had ruined everything. After a few hours, Uncle Mike came to find me. He was wearing a big bandage on his ear. “George,” he said, “it’s time for supper. Come along.” “I don’t want to go!” I said. “I’m so sorry. I’m so ashamed. I messed up our first day of fishing!” “It’s was a mistake,” said Uncle Mike, “It happens.” “But, I lost your pole—your lucky pole with Marilyn Monroe on it!” “I can get another,” said Uncle Mike. “George, you need to know that you are much more valuable to me than any fishing pole. Let’s just put the past behind us. The good news is this: We are all safe. We have other poles. And we have a whole week left for fishing.”
That was the way uncle Mike was. I always knew that he loved me. This what the disciples find out in today’s gospel. Even though they abandoned Jesus during his suffering and betrayed him, Jesus prepares a meal for them to let them know that they were forgiven and that he still loved them. This is what I want all of you who are making your first communion today to remember. As you come to this table for the first time, this meal tells you that Jesus loves you, and no matter what you do, he will not stop loving you. Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, you might lose your way. But this meal is always here to offer forgiveness and love. The same is true for all of us here today. We make mistakes. We sometimes mess things up. But God’s love is more powerful than our sins. This meal tells us that we are always welcome to share in God’s love. In this meal Jesus says to us, “Let’s put the past behind us. We have a lot more fishing to do.”